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Is Conserv Green Market Populism?

I was in my garden and was reflecting how the depleted soil from past years has been renewed with some half-baked cow manure from my buddy Tim Neale’s Beaver Creek Farm out on Mountain Track Road. My mind wandered to the briefing I gave yesterday to a local group on the idea of creating a watershed-based ecosystem services exchange for a more fuller complement of ecosystem services than Deep Green Classifieds can currently provide. More on this potential project later. Conserv is presently geared to provide a listing service for portions of what ecologists call cultural and provisioning ecosystem services. To a significant degree, there is presently a market for these types of services. For other services, called regulating, supporting, and provisioning, the markets are nascent or do not yet exist. There is information on ecosystem services posted on the Sustainability Blackboard on this site.

One of the items brought up yesterday was the legitimacy of a focus on markets at this moment in time— the thinking being that we now find the excesses of our industrial economy in a heap at our feet, and why should any effort worth pursuing return to this? It’s a good point. Thomas Frank, in his book, One Market Under God talks about the roaring 90′s dot com era (that in my view extended for another decade):

From Deadheads to Nobel-laureate economists, from paleoconservatives to New Democrats, American leaders in the nineties came to believe that markets were a popular system, a far more democratic form of organization than (democratically elected) governments. This is the central premise of what I will call “market populism”: That in addition to being mediums of exchange, markets were mediums of consent. Markets expressed the popular will more articulately and more meaningfully than did mere elections. Markets conferred democratic legitimacy; markets were a friend of the little guy; markets brought down the pompous and the snooty; markets gave us what we wanted; markets looked out for our interests.

Is Conserv just a greening of market populism, as Frank defines it? No. But asking this question is a good idea because it forces us to confront what we really are, and what I believe that Conserv and the ecosystem services movement is about has alread been well articulated by folks like Bill Reed. Bill is an architect and sustainability theorist and though we have never met, I am a great admirer of his work and his practice, Integrative Design Collaborative.

Bill states in the conclusion to a paper he submitted for the 2006 conference Rethinking Sustainable Construction 2006: Next Generation Green Buildings, Shifting our Mental Model-”Sustainability” to Regeneration:

It is the conscious activity of being in relationship to each other that will help us achieve the shift in our mental model that enables an approach to design and life that regenerates us and the places we inhabit. It is difficult to imagine we will achieve even a modicum of a sustainable condition without this conscious and collaborative approach. A concept that typically upsets environmental warriors is the idea that “development” can be healing. In fact, it must be healing or we will likely not move ourselves out of the ecological predicament we find ourselves in. Developers and development projects will find opportunities to harmonize systems instead of minimally damage them. This is an agenda that stakeholders, once they are introduced to the feasibility of such a vision, will support. It is through the development of relationships of all the entities in a place that this concept can be realized. By seeing the ultimate aim of all our work as the regeneration and evolution of increasingly vital, viable and inspiriting places, we can reverse this loss (of our places). The good work we can do needs to be done in place, where we can experience ourselves as being connected with and relevant to the natural and social world in which we live, as playing a meaningful role as co-creators. (Leaf Litter, 2006) This way of working can deliver not only more holistic and effective projects, it can also deliver a higher level of satisfaction. We experience ourselves as part of a larger whole. We are increasingly able to play a meaningful role, one that evolves us at the same time that it evolves the living communities we are an integral part of. Inevitably this results in a deep sense of caring, appreciation, connectedness for all who choose to engage in a regenerative level of work.

The core of market-based conservation is, as Bill has described, an attempt to make development, in the larger context of our economy, healing. We are all just starting to figure out how to do this. Because of the connectedness that is at the core of regenerative work, it seems to me that the strategic game moving forward is a greater integration of our economy with nature. This does carry some risk of the economy, albeit however ecological we might make it, dominating ever greater dimensions of human culture. The alternative is to somehow decouple ecology and economy and attempt to shrink the scale of our economy to fit within nature’s bounds, leaving appreciation of nature’s beauty and function untouched by the market.

- Michael Collins


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